poetry in prison

I’ve always had a fascination with the prison system here in the United States, as it’s a pretty convoluted one. The implications of institutions like death row and solitary confinement are brutal to the psyche but maintain intact regardless, rendering the lives of inmates tremendously limited and ultimately unfulfilled. 

Recently, though, there have been small but impactful initiatives being implemented throughout the nation (mostly in the northern U.S.) which are dramatically improving the system on the individual level. One example, and the example with which I am most acquainted, is the Bard Prison Initiative, based out of Bard College, a school I’ve become fairly embedded within given it’s in my hometown. The Bard Prison Initiative, or BPI, enrolls upwards of 300 individuals currently incarcerated within New York State in full-time degree programs; 97.5% of BPI graduates leave prison and never come back. Among other things, my geographic proximity to this program has garnered my interest in working with inmates. Up until today I wasn’t entirely sure how I might go about combining this with my other passion, poetry. 

A few hours ago I did a fairly simple Google search that I admittedly should’ve thought to do quite awhile ago, but regardless — I looked up “poetry prison inmates” and “prison poetry” and a few such variations. Now I’m headed down a wormhole of work published in and around prisons. A lot of it’s fascinating and deeply, deeply emotional; for example, the handwritten lines “Jasmyn equals honey bears times peanut butter / She don’t remember me” or “THE CONCRETE WALLS OF MY HEART ARE 25 FEET / SO DON’T DANGLE ME HOPE” (both from https://betweenthebars.org/campaigns/prison-poetry-workshop/).

If you don’t feel terribly sympathetic towards inmates in this prison system, I genuinely think that reading a few of these poems could change that. So regardless of your interest in the prison system, or even in poetry, I highly recommend checking some of these out. They’re honestly some of the rawest poems I’ve read in awhile. 

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